The Only Gay In the Village? Homosexuality and Sport

Nick JohnstonCorrespondent IAugust 23, 2008

Competing this year in Bejing are 10,708 athletes. Only 10 are openly gay and only one of them, Matthew Mitcham, is male.

Statistically, the percentage given in the Western world amongst a random sample is between 3 and 10%, with most people favouring a figure of around 5% or one in 20.

10 of 10,708 is clearly much lower than any of these. It works out at around 0.09%, a far lower percentage than any serious study would suggest. Most figures would predict the number of gay athletes to be above 500, so why is it only 10? Likewise, why has only one top flight English football player, Justin Fashanu, come out as gay?

There are a number of theories, some suggesting that homosexuality is less prevalent amongst top-class athletes than other professions, but most believe that athletes would prefer not to "come out".

Particularly in team sports, gay athletes fear that the interaction between themselves and other competitors would be weakened if he/she was openly gay. For example, Graeme le Saux, a former Chelsea and England footballer who was not gay, but was widely believed to be, felt that he was treated differently by team-mates and opponents as a result of his alleged homosexuality.

Many high profile athletes who are very much in the public eye, feel that the impact on their public persona could cost them endorsements, media coverage and other such support.

Other suggestions are that for these athletes, the pressure on them is intense enough without having to answer to homophobes in the sport, in the media and in the public and so choose to conceal the truth.

But, I would have to side with the interaction suggestion. In a close environment such as the ones in which these athletes compete, any difference could drive a competitor down or even out of the top level.

This is backed up by the fact that more women are openly "out" than men, with female sporting environments seen as more forgiving, but the figures are still startlingly low.

Shortly before I wrote this, Matthew Mitcham won the gold medal in the men's 10m diving competition, breaking the Chinese stranglehold on Olympic diving but also, and perhaps more importantly, becoming the one of the first "out" male athlete to win a gold medal in the Games.

Similarly, two members of the Norway's gold medal-winning, women's handball team (Hammerseng and Nyberg) are an openly out couple.

Gay athletes, sadly, are choosing (or being forced) not to come out as it is simply easier for them. Whilst society has changed its attitudes towards homosexuality, sport has not even come close to facing up to this taboo subject.